Channel Bells

The low-pressure system that we were trying to beat south continued to grow in strength and intensity. The system coded in deep oranges and reds by various weather models passed across the mid-Atlantic region bringing torrential rain, flooding, road closures, high winds and power outages. Social media was littered with shaky cell phone footage of creeks swollen to river’s gulping major roadways. Sinkholes appeared, and water burbled out of seemingly dry roadways, yet the storm continued to grow.

Images from our favorite cruising grounds showed towering waves smashing beaches, anchorages and moored boats straining against their lines. To our south, boats moored in the hook just outside of Province Town clocked winds more than 50 mph, and forecast models for offshore showed force 10 conditions. Imagine climbing onto a bucking deck awash to set a sea anchor, a lifeline as waves with long overhanging crest crash down. Blowing foam and dense white streaks reach out into the distance, and the entire expanse is boiling frothing white water.

We arrived at the Isle of Shoals 20 hours before the low-pressure system was forecasted to blast the gulf. The Isle of Shoals is a group of small islands, between 60 and 90 acres for the largest. Some are tidal ledges only visible at low tide but marked at high tide with breaking waves. The islands have some elevation, characterized by low vegetation and a boulder-strewn coast. Just 6 miles offshore, they straddle the border between Maine and New Hampshire. As we approached the islands, they rose from the horizon like a series of large turtle shells. As we drew closer and rounded to the north, enormous geysers of breaking white water blasted over the eastern cliffs. We continued to round the islands, sighting few homes, a fortress tower and two tall ships at anchored in Gosport Harbor.

We cautiously motored into the harbor under the shadow of Star Island, a series of residential homes and a Stephen Kingish hotel owned by the Star Island Corporation. The scene was the perfect picture of harmony or the perfect setting for a horror movie. As we entered the harbor, the 25 acre Smuttynose Island lay directly to port. It was the sight of the 1813 Spanish shipwreck Sagunto and a set of grisly murders recounted in Anita Shreve’s 1997 bestselling novel, the Weight of Water.

As a sailboat departed, we grabbed 1 of several available moorings. Alison and I sat in the cockpit and watched as the blue water boat hoisted sail and headed north. We hoped towards a safe harbor. Through the previous night, conditions steadily improved and we could have headed out to sea to shape a course further south towards Province Town. Knowing that the low-pressure system was just 20 hours away, we didn’t want to risk getting caught in possible storm conditions. So we continued to shape course for the Isle of Shoals. We thought about the low-pressure system and the sailboat leaving harbor. “I hope he knows what’s what,” I said quietly. 
We spent the day resting and recovering from our overnight passage. We left the dinghy tied securely to the deck and splayed out in the cockpit. Alison baked amazingly delicious bread, perfecting the recipe and plying us with french toast. On deck, we gazed at the ocean scarred landscape, enjoyed the company of a few large gulls and listened to the thunderous waves crash against the shoreline. Protected in the tiny anchorage by a breakwater built with pirate’s silver, we rested and waited for the low-pressure system.

On our second morning, the weather models showed the low-pressure system pushing east, leaving us only with wind in the low 20’s and a few thunderstorms. We sat for another day on Caprica, resting, reading, eating, relaxing and enjoying the beauty of our surroundings. Throughout the day tested mariners entered the harbor, grabbing any available mooring then disappearing below. We watched a boat pick up a mooring close to rocks, rocks that left him aground when the 10-foot tide swirled out of the harbor. Other scenes were less dramatic, but the constant whitewater blowing over the breakwater reminded us of what we escaped. Every explosion of water was accompanied by a thunderclap. As the rain and thunderstorms marched across the islands, we sat dry, warm and safe.

Early in the morning, the comforting channel bells tireless clanging relaxed and down below we rolled with an easy swell. On deck, we were greeted with a clear sky and calm sea state. In a matter of half an hour, we slipped the mooring and headed out of harbor. Alison and I sat on deck as we rounded a series of small islands, channel markers, and a lighthouse. We admired the breaking waves and harsh landscape wondering what a winter gale at the Isle of Shoals was like. After a cup of coffee and oatmeal, we shaped course south towards a small town just 20 miles away with a decent bay nearby to anchor in.

The gentle swells lifted Caprica 4 feet and then casually set her down in the trough. Lobster and tuna boats traveled by us, heading out to sea or placing traps in the deep water. We lounged on deck in the sunshine watching the birds then were amazed as a giant tuna catapulted out of the ocean again and again. It was a beautiful creature, and I instantly wanted to eat it. A few miles more, a pectoral fin of a whale gently broke the surface without drama or flare.

The wind blew southerly and brought a chill, then a heavy fog bank descended around us. Alison fell into her routine at the radar, adjusting settings, calling out targets and working the ranges. We vectored around fishing boats, and again I was amazed that with all of this room, we could find something to hit. With finer tuning, Alison was able to see lobster pot floats in our path and called course corrections on deck. We watched the radar and then saw the red blobs turn into boats or floats emerging out of the fog. On deck, the fog swirled and curled around us, forming apparitions and a fogbow, something that I’ve never seen before. I sat in awe as the fogbow briefly turned into a rainbow then back to a dense grey bridge that travel with us.

As we approached Rockport, we slowed anticipating using the radar and chart to pick our way into Sandy Bay. Then suddenly the fog was gone and a half dozen small fishing boat zipped along the shoreline. A few lobster boats burbled across our beam, and we poked our way through the maze of pots to the anchorage. We circled a few times, like a dog spinning in his seat looking for just the right spot. We anchored in 30 feet of water, not wanting to get any closer to the shore.

With 190 feet of chain out, we sit securely with a sandy beach at our bow a cool breeze caressing our deck and a town hidden behind a fortress of stone ready to be explored.

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